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A brief history about the spinningwheel

Hände die Wolle spinnen
© Greta Webhofer

In the following article we'll have a look at how the spinningwheel has evolved over time.

Old Stone Age (approx 2,500,000 - 9,000 BC.)

The Old Stone Age is one of the first and longest phases in human history. There are only few vegetable fiber and animal finds from this time, as most of them have already been decomposed by bacteria a long time ago. It can only be speculated where and why humankind has first stared to produce and use textiles. Nevertheless, clay fragments were found at two famous Czech sites, Pavlov and Dolnì Vestonice,on which impressions of various pieces of textiles can be found. Those fibers were of vegetable origin and were processed using various technques (braiding, knotting, twisting and even some form of weaving). These finds are ofer 27,000 years old.

In addition, the first needles with eyes were found in Europe. Much of what was previously thought of as jewelry can now be associated with textile manufacture. Round slices made of mammoth bones can already be the first evidence of a spindle whorl.

Middle Stone Age (approx. 9,000 - 5,500 BC.)

There are few to no finds from the Middle Stone Age. Fragments of fishing nets and baskets have been found from this period. Tree branches, twigs, roots and grass were used.

New Stone Age (approx. 5,500 - 2,200 BC)

People's lives changed a lot wih the transition to the New Stone Age - they became sedentary farmers and ranchers and turned to nature to help them by beginning to use it for their needs.

In a cave in Israel (Nahal Hemar), any different textile scraps were found tat were made from yarns of different thicknesses. Spinning whorls were also found, but not complete spindels.

Bronze Age (approx. 2,200 - 800 BC.)

People began to mine metals, which means that stone tools slowly started to vanish. While a lot changed, especially in social areas, spinning with the hand-held spindle semained the same. The only thing that changed about the spindle was that metal was also used for its manufacture. The raw material also changed. Up until now vegetable fibers were mainly sed, but now sheep's wool has also gained popularity.

For the first time there also is pictoral evidence of spinning. The oldest evidence can be found in the Middle East, which was drawn around 4,000BC (there the Bronce Age began earlier).

Tomb paintings from the Egyptian Pharaonic Empire also provide information about spinning and processing of textiles.

Iron Age (approx. 800 - 15 BC.)

Now, in Europe, there are also pictoral representations of spinning with the hand-held spindle. In Hungary, for example, a cay pot was found on which a spinner, a weaver and a third woman, who holds a frame tight strings, are shown - in archeological literature this fram is mostly interpreted as a musical instrument.

Roman Iron Age (approx. 15 BC - 284 AD.)

Little has changed concearning the teachinque of spinning. But now there are also written record about textile production in Europe. Contemporary writers (Cato, Pliny the Elder, Vitruvius) wrote texts about spinning and there are inscriptions and paintings on tombs and buildings.

[...]Domum servavit, lanam fecit.[...] / [...]She guarded the house, spunn wool.[...]

This inscription can be found on the grave of a woman named Claudia.

Various written texts show that textiles were no longer only manufactured for personal use, but also specifically for sale. The spinnes no longer operated in agriculture, but were completely dependent on the sale of their handicrafted products. There is evidence of a great deal of specialization within the craftsmen, which is even greater than with some other areas of processing. There were weavers, felters, walkers, washers, various dyers, tailors and a few other subdivisions.

The spinner's professional name was "quaesillaria" - there is no male form for this term.

In Pompeii most of the workshops were used for the textile sector. There, through inscriptions on the wall, the names of some spinner women were handed down to us: Florentina, Heraclea, Maria, Servola, Amarylis to name just a few.

While fabrics were produced in large quantities and with special properties for the Roman military, the rural population continued to spinn for their own needs.

Sheep wool was the most important fiber for textile production in the Roman Empire, cotton and silk were luxury goods. Pure white wool was most valued, and sheep were sometimes dressed in a sack-shaped coats to protect the wool.

Early Middle Age (approx. 600 - 1000 AD.)

Germanic kingdoms were formed, whereby the influence of the Christian church grew and the nobility had the most power of the economy. Spinning whorls were considered typical grave goods for women. In graves in which the bones are no longer preserved, the grave goods can be used to identify the gender of the person (women got a spindle whorl, men a weapon). The time of the Early Middle Ages is also the time of the Vikings in Europe. In a ship burial in Oseberg (Norway) you can find the largest and most diverse collection of textiles and textile tools that have ever been found in a single grave. Braiding- and loom frames, spindle whorls with and without spindle bars, hand reels and much more were found.

Middle ages (approx. 1000 - 1250 AD.)

The first spinning wheels, the so-called spindle wheels, appeared in Central Europe in the 13th century. It is not entirely certain where and when the first spinning wheel was invented. One possibility is that it came from China, where there are references for spinning wheels over 2000 years ago. But in India too, spinning was carried out very early on with the spindle wheel (Charka), which is still in use today. The European spinning wheels differed optically from the Asian ones. While the Asian spinning wheels were operated while sitting on the ground, the European ones had long legs and were operated while standing. Spinning wheels are even mentioned in various writings in the 13th century. Some cities (e.g. Venice, Bologna, Paris) banned spindle wheels because the quality of the yarn was as good as the yarn that was produced with the hand spindle. Another problem was that fewer people were needed for spinning, which significantly slowed the introduction of the spinning wheel. Nevertheless, the simple spindle wheel was further developed. With the invention of the spinning wing, the spun yarn did not have to be specially wound up, but instead wound itself up on a spool.

Modern Age (approx. 1450 - Now)

The textile sector was changing. Depending on the agricultural conditions some areas became either linen or wool processing centers. In the 14th century cotton processing also began to become popular. In the cities the weavers became dependent on the traders because they obtained their raw material, but also sold their finished products. The publishing industry was formed - the publishers also distributed the raw materials in rural regions and picked up the finished product again. Although up to 80% of the population worked in agriculture, the textile sector was the second most important source of income. The foot drive for the spinning wheel was invented in the 16th century. Spinning became easier because you could sit and work with both hands. The old production methods were replaced by the industrial revolution. Through the use of machines fewer workers are required, which in turn meant that poverty rose sharply. Cotton processing resulted in the first real industrial branch, namely the textile industry. The factory system created a working class that was exploited by starvation wages, excessive working hours and child labor. Towards the end of the 18th century, domestic hand spinning was replaced by machine yarn production. However, spinning remained a respected recreational activity for wealthy women.


Book: Spinnst Du? Na klar! Ulrike Claßen-Büttner (Ausgabe 2009) (30.08.2021)

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